January 2014 Archives

Robyn Benson, PSAC

"Why do we as veterans have to beg?"

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In a last-ditch effort to save regional service offices from closing, veterans from across the country made a direct appeal to Veterans Affairs Minister James Fantino yesterday, at an Ottawa news conference we were privileged to organize and participate in.

A face-to-face meeting with the Minister later yesterday did not go well. Veterans said they were treated with disrespect, and called for Fantino’s resignation.

Meanwhile, in Sydney, Nova Scotia, more veterans staged a sit-in. This is hardly a group that one normally associates with that kind of direct action. But they’re desperate.

These offices, and the services our members provide, are vital to veterans. Without them, they would have to travel long distances at their own expense to access those services. Many, suffering from a variety of battlefield injuries, will simply not be able to make the trip.

One office has already been closed. Another eight are slated for closure at the end of the week. The savings to the government are all of $3.7 million—far, far less than the costs of the government’s incessant Economic Action Plan ads. Aren’t those who were sent into battle and who returned, scarred physically and mentally, worth this small amount?

The Leader of the Opposition, Tom Mulcair, rose in the House of Commons today to speak on behalf of the veterans. But all Canadians owe our support to these brave men and women, no matter what our politics. It’s a matter of keeping a solemn promise made to our troops on the eve of the battle of Vimy Ridge in World War I, by the Prime Minister at the time, Sir Robert Borden.

“You can go into this action,” he said, “feeling assured of this, and as the head of the government I give you this assurance: That you need not fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to the country and Empire in what you are about to do and what you have already done.”

That promise is being broken as I write this. “Why do we as veterans have to beg?” asked Roy Lamore, a WWII veteran from Thunder Bay, Ontario.

A damn good question. Why indeed, Mr. Harper?

[Photo Credit: CTV News]

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Pete Seeger, RIP

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As legendary labour organizer and songwriter Joe Hill was awaiting execution, he told his friends to carry on doing what needed to be done—“Don’t waste time mourning, organize!” American folksinger Pete Seeger, born four years after Hill died in 1915, keeps his memory alive in the clip above. Now Seeger is a memory as well: after living a rich, full life, he passed away this week at the age of 94.

Seeger was active in many causes, including disarmament and civil rights, but many remember him for his unwavering support for unions and the labour movement. “Talking Union” is a classic, from 1941:

He was a man of his time, but he grew with the times as well. Here’s a more recent rendition of “Union Maid,” with Arlo Guthrie: the last verse of the original 1940s version, telling the “girls” to “join the Women’s Auxiliary” and marry a good union man, had long since been dropped!

It’s only human to mourn. But moving on to organize? That’s a message that’s more timely now than ever. How better to honour Pete Seeger than to do just that.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Neil Young, Canadian

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We can learn lessons from Neil Young’s recent “Honour the Treaties” tour in Canada to campaign against tar sands pollution and for the treaty rights of First Nations—perhaps less about that pollution itself than the consequences of speaking out on controversial subjects.

It can be a bit rough.

Young isn’t a climate scientist. He’s a rock star, who happens to believe the environment and First Nations treaty rights are issues worth raising. Given his pop-culture status, he’s got more of a platform than most. That irritates the powers that be.

So Big Oil and its defenders quickly brought out the heavy artillery, accusing him of hypocrisy. After all, didn’t he fly up here for his tour on a polluting jet? (He arrived in a vehicle powered by biodiesel, as it happens.) He’s a “foreign know-nothing,” screams a hastily put up pro-tar sands website called “Neil Young Lies.” (He’s a Canadian citizen.)

And an outfit called “Ethical Oil,” which lobbies hard for the oil industry, took a swipe at First Nations as well, with the Twitter hashtag #IndianIgnorant. Nice, eh?

More and more research is showing that tar sands development is poisoning the environment with all sorts of pollutants, including mercury. Tar sands pollution, in fact, is literally driving people from their homes.

But in the tar sands region doctors are turning patients away who complain of symptoms that could be linked to pollution. In great part this is because they’ve been terrorized into silence. They remember what happened to a colleague of theirs, Dr. John O’Connor, who was threatened with loss of his licence after raising the alarm in 2006 about cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan. He was exonerated after a long battle, one that other doctors aren’t keen on fighting themselves.

Prominent Canadians are rising to Neil Young’s defence. That’s encouraging. But all of our voices should be heard.

Speaking truth to power, as the record shows above, is not without its risks. What trade union activist is unaware of that? Every one of us has taken our lumps for speaking up in the workplace. But speaking out is a right, and like any other right it needs exercise or it withers away.

The personal risks, of course, are far less for a well-off celebrity, but Young has shown what folks face when they take a stand for themselves and others. He doesn’t need to do what he does: he could do without the storm of personal attacks that he’s been attracting. But defending our environment, and insisting that First Nations living in the path of pipelines get a fair shake, is the right thing to do—and so he does it.

Speaking our minds, in our workplaces or elsewhere, isn’t always easy, but it goes directly to what citizenship really means. And Neil Young is every inch a citizen.

Chris Aylward

Dunderdale steps down

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Katherine Dunderdale, Premier of my native province of Newfoundland and Labrador, announced her resignation today. To be honest, I’m glad to see her go.

Two and a half years ago, she swept into power with a majority government. Unlike her predecessor, the feisty Progressive Conservative Premier Danny Williams, who was unafraid of taking on the Harper government in the interests of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, Dunderdale generally got on well with the Harper Conservatives. She might have taken on the now-departed Nigel Wright, who tried a last-minute squeeze play on a loan deal for Muskrat Falls that she had made nice with Harper to get, but the Prime Minister himself duly showed up on her home turf to ink the agreement.

The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project got environmental approval by the Harper government against the continuing objections of Inuit people living in the path of it. But what’s a little mercury poisoning? (Of course, the First Nations of Grassy Narrows could tell you all about that.)

Then there was Dunderdale’s support for vastly increased government secrecy, a replica of the Harper government’s similar obsession. Under her leadership, the government passed the infamous Bill 29, dropping Newfoundland and Labrador below the rank of several Third World countries with respect to access to information.

The icing on this stale cake was the Premier’s response to the recent rolling blackouts in the province, widely seen as startlingly inept.

The political fallout from all this has been dire for her party. The Progressive Conservatives recently lost an elected representative to the Liberals in the House of Assembly, and are now trailing the Liberals by a whopping 23% in the polls.

The Conservatives’ fortunes in the provinces have been waning right across Canada, in perfect harmony with those of the federal Conservatives, presently plummeting in the polls. How much of Dunderdale’s fall was of her own making, then, and how much was due to widespread disillusion with the Harper Conservatives and everything they stand for, is anyone’s guess. But it is clear that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, like the people of Canada as a whole, are looking for change. None of this bodes well for Harper’s Conservatives in 2015: I’m trying not to weep a tear.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Cheap labour chronicles, continued

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Some folks may think I’m a trifle obsessed with the subject of cheap labour and precarious work, but I make no apologies for that. You should be, too. Your livelihood may be at stake—and the young generation, scrambling to find work, is more vulnerable than ever.

So a couple of news stories caught my eye recently. No less a person than Stephen Harper has now denounced his own government’s Temporary Foreign Worker program, stating that it has been “assisting…companies to work around the marketplace in a way that disadvantaged Canadian workers only for the sake of the bottom line profit.”

Nah, you think? And he goes on:

We have seen very blatant examples of companies using this in ways that were not in the interest of Canadians.

That kind of abuse cannot go on.

There must be plans for companies to transition to a permanent workforce. What I say is if you really need temporary workers permanently, then that means we need permanent workers who become Canadian. And they have a right to stay here, and they have a right to bargain with their employer, and they have a right to be treated fairly, and they have a right not to be sent back to where they came from the first time they don’t like something.

Gosh. I could have written that sort of thing myself. In fact, I have.

Needless to say, Harper blames all this on the previous Liberal government and unspecified “bureaucrats.” But what gets to me is his apparent tone of surprise and indignation. It’s not like this hasn’t been in the news for some time.

The key question, of course, is what he’s planning to do about it if he’s all that peeved. Was he just speaking to a select audience for effect? We’ll keep our eyes peeled. In the meantime, be assured that the strong reaction across Canada to TFW program abuses has unnerved the Conservatives, facing an election next year. And that’s encouraging news.

Then comes a story that, at first blush, may seem very removed indeed from the first one. It seems that Wal-Mart has a now-not-secret manual for managers to keep the workplace “union-free.”

On factor that apparently makes workers turn to unions is “Dirty restrooms or breakrooms,” not the first time this curious idea has been expressed.

The manual goes on to refer to “early warning signs” that unionizing is about to occur, or is already taking place. This one is more than a little creepy: “Frequent meetings at associates’ homes.” And this one: “Associates who are never seen together start talking or associating with each other and begin forming strange alliances.”

“Strange alliances,” eh? Boggles the mind.

The manual is US-based, so it states—accurately—that striking workers may not be fired, but may be permanently replaced. You tell me the difference, because I can’t figure it out. In Canada, in any case, workers may be temporarily replaced (other than in the Quebec and BC jurisdictions), but striking workers get their jobs back after a strike.

Now, the point of all this is obvious. Wal-Mart employees (or “associates”) are poorly paid, and have no job security. Unions threaten that status quo. While unions rightly guarantee nothing to workers they are organizing, their record is clear with respect to wages and benefits.

Wal-Mart isn’t the only company that’s taking an aggressive approach to unionization. And you can bet that similar handbooks and videos are circulating in Canada.

It’s odd, because there is ample evidence that lousy wages and benefits in themselves aren’t necessarily profitable. But many employers still prefer workplaces where pension benefits are nonexistent, other benefits are few, wages are low, employment security doesn’t exist—and employees have no means to push back. Our own federal employer has just passed legislation that sets labour relations back half a century—and more anti-labour legislation is in the works. In Ontario, the Progressive Conservative party of Tim Hudak set a policy some time ago to bring in US-style “right to work (for less)” laws.

Is there a trend here? I’d say so. But I can also see a counter-trend. Most Canadians support unions, and they oppose regressive anti-labour laws. The long-resistant service sector is getting unionized, one coffee shop at a time. Frustration with the US low-wage economy is boiling over. And in Ontario, strong reaction forced Hudak to pull back publicly from his “right-to-work” agenda, even if his actual intentions remain very clear.

There is nothing inevitable, then, about a future of precarious work that so many employers, including our own government, would like to see for working people. Unions and our social allies can build a different future for ourselves and our children. It’s time to put our shoulders to the wheel.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Conflicts and interests

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One seldom sees double standards as blatant as the free pass given to former Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl to chair the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), and a new National Energy Board assignment: to take over key environmental responsibilities from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Public workers know what conflict of interest is. It’s almost bred in the bone. But in case anyone has forgotten, there’s a Treasury Board policy on the matter, a very strict one, which includes apparent conflicts of interest as well as actual ones. Here’s the definition, for anyone who needs to brush up:

Conflict of Interest (COI): a situation in which the public servant has private interests that could improperly influence the performance of his or her official duties and responsibilities or in which the public servant uses his or her office for personal gain. A real conflict of interest exists at the present time, an apparent conflict of interest could be perceived by a reasonable observer to exist, whether or not it is the case, and a potential conflict of interest could reasonably be foreseen to exist in the future.

On top of that policy, which leaves precious little wiggle-room, the Conservative powers that be have imposed at least one extreme Code of Conduct, upon librarians at Library and Archives Canada. This Code deems their professional activities outside the office “high risk,” regulates their personal lives as well, and encourages employees to snitch on each other. The Code also demands loyalty, not to Canada, but to the Conservative government.

Such touching concern for the integrity of its workforce! Not a single opportunity for a conflict of interest will be permitted to arise, even if almost every aspect of an employee’s life has to be micromanaged to ensure it.

So in the office, it’s 1984. But at the political level? Quite a different standard comes into play.

Chuck Strahl, a Conservative loyalist who has, since leaving the government, headed up a right-wing think tank, was appointed to chair SIRC in 2012. He has now registered as a lobbyist for Enbridge. The problem here is that, as SIRC chair, Strahl has access to highly classified information from CSIS—which, along with the RCMP and the National Energy Board, has been working closely with Enbridge and other oil companies to monitor environmental groups opposed to the development of the Alberta tar sands.

Strahl’s ability to play a neutral oversight role as SIRC chair, therefore, presents difficulties. In the words of Lorne Sossin, the Dean of Osgoode Law School, “There seems to me to be an inherent challenge in having a lobbyist serve in such a capacity….The standard for impartiality at law is one of perception and I think a reasonable person could certainly see a conflict in this context.”

But the parliamentary Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson, sees no problem with this. In fact she sees no problem with very much, having routinely absolved government ministers, staff and MPs of any breaches of the House of Commons’s Conflict of Interest Code during her tenure. In one notorious case, she gave the green light to Conservative MPs to vote to abolish the Canada Wheat Board even when they stood to gain financially from its disappearance.

As the Chair of a supposedly apolitical oversight agency, Strahl’s involvements have already come under scrutiny. His lobbying on behalf of Enbridge adds more fuel to the fire. We have more questions here than answers, certainly, but a much laxer standard is clearly being applied to Strahl—indeed, to half of the SIRC board—than, say, to a librarian at LAC.

What of government agencies themselves? The National Energy Board, which just approved the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, has now been given new responsibilities—to assess whether a pipeline might harm fish and their habitats. To any reasonable person, this must smack somewhat of foxes regulating hen-houses. Again, a lower standard regarding conflict of interest is being applied—or, possibly, no standard at all.

All the lines here converge on the development of the Alberta tar sands and the interests of Big Oil. Nothing, it seems, will be allowed to get in the way of that, neither ethical principles of governance nor public concern. It’s cold comfort indeed to note that, in this particular respect at least, any conflict of interest is fast on its way to being eliminated altogether.

[Photo credit]

Robyn Benson, PSAC


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How nice. We’re now paying for a weekly puff piece featuring Stephen Harper looking at things and saying things, produced and directed out of the Prime Minister’s Office. Like any other propaganda, it excludes any suggestion of protest or dissent. Surprisingly, perhaps, his debut in both official languages is accompanied by strains of The Maple Leaf Forever in the background—not a song particularly favoured in Quebec, celebrating as it does General Wolfe’s triumph over the French on the Plains of Abraham.

Let me state this straight out: besides wasting your money and mine on this weekly series, which could easily be renamed “Stephen Harper’s Heritage Moments,” there’s something a little creepy about this apparent self-obsession. It’s hardly the first time that the Prime Minister has tried to make it all about him: check out this disturbing story from six years ago. There is indeed more than a whiff of a would-be personality cult in the wind here, even if Canada is not really fertile ground for that sort of thing. Or so I sincerely hope. For now, this latest venture has been the butt of Twitter jokes and at least one well-deserved spoof, (from PressProgress):

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But even setting aside what Huffington Post calls the “North Korean vibes,” there is a wider issue here that shouldn’t be ignored. It is improper, pure and simple, for any government to use tax revenues for partisan purposes. Even the Conservatives pay lip-service to this principle, and jobs can be lost over it. But then they go ahead and keep doing it, at least until they’re caught at it.

Admittedly, the lines can get blurry at times—and the more blur, from the government’s perspective, the better. How does one draw the line between a mere announcement of some government action or other to inform the public, and a paid (by us) political advertisement? Well, like most other Canadians, I know partisanship when I see it. Take (please!) the Economic Action Plan stuff, which has cost us millions by now. What makes me hopeful and optimistic is that most Canadians, as they have with Harper’s latest venture, have tuned right out.

There’s a final piece to be added in all of this. Any functioning democracy requires accountability on the part of those elected: that’s Democracy 101. But we’re not getting any such thing from the Harper government. Instead it’s an endless game of hide-and-seek, avoiding the media, limiting or refusing questions. This administration prefers to pump out expensive and wasteful self-advertising, and make sure that the few glimpses we do get of The Leader are officially approved, sanitized and relentlessly upbeat. We’ve read too much history not to worry about this approach to government. And the fact that we should have to cough up the cash for this on-going travesty makes it all the more intolerable.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Les employés jetables : un avenir incertain

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Bonne et heureuse année!

Si la météo est un indicateur de ce qui nous attend, 2014 sera une année rigoureuse. À Winnipeg, il a fait aussi froid que sur Mars au début de janvier! Le pire, c'est que bien des gens doivent dormir dans la rue par ces nuits glaciales.

Combien d'autres personnes, vivotant sur des salaires de misère, risquent de se retrouver dans la même situation du jour au lendemain?

L'assurance emploi? Un chômeur sur cinq n'y a pas droit parce qu'il ne répond pas aux critères d'admissibilité, qui sont de plus en plus stricts. Pourtant, tous les travailleurs et travailleuses contribuent à ce fonds.

Les plus durement touchés, ce sont les Canadiennes et les Canadiens qui ont des emplois temporaires, à bas salaire et sans avantages sociaux. Et ils sont de plus en plus nombreux. À Hamilton et dans le grand Toronto, par exemple, la moitié des travailleurs ont un emploi précaire.

Quel avenir réserve-t-on aux travailleuses et travailleurs? Le chômage à long terme est à la hausse. Le taux de chômage chez les jeunes est élevé. Les compagnies, obnubilées par leur rentabilité, abusent des stages non rémunérés. Contrairement à ce qu'affirme le gouvernement Harper, le Programme des travailleurs étrangers temporaires bloque l'accès de travailleurs canadiens à des emplois. Où cela nous mènera-t-il? Dans quelle société nos enfants vivront-ils?

Et pour vous, qui travaillez à la fonction publique, quelles sont les répercussions?

Vos milieux de travail ont changé. Il y a beaucoup plus d'emplois précaires qu'avant, et vous pourriez être le prochain touché.

Cela a commencé avec le recours aux agences de placement temporaire. On a rapporté, récemment, qu'un travailleur temporaire sur cinq restait à la fonction publique plus d'un an. En 2013, près de la moitié des travailleurs nouvellement embauchés provenaient d'une agence de placement. (Signalons que ces personnes n'ont pas droit aux mêmes salaires et avantages sociaux que les fonctionnaires.) La plupart travaillent pour des compagnies non syndiquées, qui les placent chez l'un ou l'autre employeur, selon les besoins. À la fonction publique, où l'on coupe des postes à qui mieux mieux, on invoque deux raisons pour justifier l'embauche de contractuels : la surcharge de travail et la pénurie de personnel. Ironique, non?

Quelques travailleuses et travailleurs temporaires ont réussi à décrocher un emploi à la fonction publique, permanent ou non, mais ce nombre est en baisse puisque le nombre total d'embauches a chuté. Résultat : beaucoup moins de possibilités de décrocher un emploi à la fonction publique.

Ces travailleuses et travailleurs ont, comme vous et moi, des rêves et des espoirs. Aujourd'hui, leur avenir est plus qu'incertain.

Les emplois d'une durée déterminée ont aussi beaucoup transformé les milieux de travail. Vous occupez un tel poste? Alors, vous connaissez le sens de « travail précaire ». Heureusement, grâce aux efforts de nos équipes de négociation, vous bénéficiez aujourd'hui de la plupart des droits et des avantages consentis aux travailleurs nommés pour une période indéterminée qui sont couverts par votre convention collective. Il vous manque toutefois la sécurité d'emploi. Selon les règles établies à la fonction publique, si vous occupez un tel poste pendant trois ans, vous accédez à la permanence. En théorie, du moins, car les ministères et les agences peuvent faire des exceptions. Ainsi, votre service ne s'accumulera plus si on décide en haut lieu qu'il pourrait y avoir réaménagement des effectifs à l'avenir (voir l'article 7.2 de la Politique sur l'emploi pour une période déterminée du Conseil du Trésor). Les ministères exploitent allègrement cette échappatoire.

Enfin, il y a tous ceux et celles qui ont reçu un avis « d'employé touché ». Les compressions à la fonction publique ont fait grimper le taux de chômage. Vivre dans l'angoisse de perdre son emploi, c'est stressant, surtout lorsque le gouvernement s'évertue à rendre le processus aussi pénible que possible. Chose certaine, se retrouver au chômage est bien pire.
Si je dresse un portrait aussi sombre de la situation, c'est que je veux attirer votre attention sur une tendance lourde. Depuis leur arrivée au pouvoir, les conservateurs ont mis en place des politiques qui transforment le Canada en un vaste bassin de travailleurs « jetables ». Les syndicats peuvent renverser la vapeur, mais pas seuls.

D'aucuns affirment que les syndicats ne devraient pas se mêler de politique. Que faire d'autre alors que le gouvernement ne se gêne pas, lui, pour se mêler de syndicalisme en voulant faire adopter des projets de loi antisyndicaux?

Le temps est venu pour les syndicats et leurs alliés du mouvement citoyen de faire front commun. Il faut se mobiliser. Il faut en finir avec les conservateurs. À nous de jouer : en 2014, unissons nos forces!

Chris Aylward


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The “polar vortex” (or as many Canadians call it, “January”), still holds most of us in its icy grip. My native province of Newfoundland got hit with a massive power outage on top of it, just to sweeten matters. Across North America, comparisons with the temperature on Mars have become the in thing.

But outside that mad polar whirl, somewhat different comparisons are available: it’s been warmer in Alaska than Georgia, for example. Cold comfort to those of us in the deep freeze, of course, even if we are told the vortex is on its way back to the Arctic where it belongs. It’s been so frigid that an escaped prison inmate in Kentucky phoned the police, asking to be let back in.

At least one wacky conservative south of the border has been claiming that the whole polar vortex thing is a hoax. Sometimes, it seems, you do need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.

Closer to home, I was struck by the near-universal outrage over a police officer in Montreal apparently threatening that he would tie a poorly-dressed homeless man to a pole. He’s (deservedly) in some trouble now, but when spectacular cases of police brutality attract far less outrage, one might wonder about the serious consequences here for mere words. I suspect the answer is that we haven’t all been pepper-sprayed or dragged down a staircase by the neck, but we’ve all felt the cold. We instantly empathize with the fellow in T-shirt and jean-shorts outside in weather like this. (Needless to say, other officers are out across the country rescuing people.)

The weather, certainly, hasn’t always brought out the best in people. This story out of Toronto is downright embarrassing:

Usually thought of as polite, Canadian travelers dropped their courteous demeanor. Police were called to the airport to calm hundreds of frustrated passengers who were verbally abusing airport employees. No arrests have been made to date.

Nevertheless, more positive stories, like this, are commonplace anywhere you go: folks tend to help out total strangers in a mutual crisis. Here’s a typical random act of kindness. No doubt you could share some of your own (please do—that’s what the comment section is for).

Everyone talks about the weather, said Mark Twain, but nobody does anything about it. Yet that’s not entirely true. We may not be able to stop wobbly Arctic vortices from chilling the blood, but we can generally cope when it happens—some of us, of course, much better than others. On balance, we collectively rise to the occasion. In the labour movement, we call that solidarity. But in plainer language—we look after each other.

[Photo credit: Reuters/Mathieu Belanger]

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Wanton Conservative vandalism

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Libraries being trashed, books being burned? Reminds one of another century—or of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, about an age when books are banned and “firemen” are sent out to burn them. But this is now reality in Stephen Harper’s Canada.

Like the elimination of the long-form census and the long gun registry, destroying books is likely not a wedge issue for voters; but it makes my top twenty list of reasons why the Harper Tories must go in the next election.

To the horror and dismay of scientists, seven regional libraries of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) are being closed, and most of the books, papers and other materials they housed have been destroyed or given away.

Some have sent to other libraries. Some holdings were opened up for scientists, consultants and the general public to scavenge what they could.

The rest ended up in dumpsters, and thereafter, landfills or bonfires.

The government claims that the materials were digitized prior to the destruction. This turned out to be untrue. Much of this priceless material, including environmental data that could be at odds with the government’s tar sands priorities, is lost forever. Gone are most books—reportedly as few as one in twenty were digitized—and data going back more than a century, collected in numerous specialist reports.

One scientist says: “I did manage to salvage a few bits and pieces, one of which was a three volume print version of the data that went into the now extinct DFO toxins database….Interested individuals should drop-in and loot [the] library before the bonfires begin.” Another scientist spoke of “hundreds of bound journals, technical reports and texts still on the shelves, presumably meant for the garbage or shredding. I saw one famous monograph on zooplankton, which would probably fetch a pretty penny at a used science bookstore… anybody could go in and help themselves, with no record kept of who got what.”

A 50-volume collection of logs from HMS Challenger’s 19th century expedition went to the landfill, taking with them the crucial observations of marine life, fish stocks and fisheries of the age. Thankfully, a copy survives overseas.

“I saw a private consultant firm working for Manitoba Hydro back up a truck and fill it with Manitoba data and materials that the public had paid for,” said Kelly Whelan-Enns, head of media and policy research for Manitoba Wildlands. “I was profoundly saddened and appalled.”

Books out on loan were not recalled, adding to the chaos.

And as for being able to use the material that remains—be prepared to jump through hoops. Where researchers could once browse the shelves of regional libraries for materials that might be relevant to their research, now inter-library loans will have to be used to get access to any of it, a process very much like the “I’m feeling lucky” random search button on Google.

All this to save less than $0.5 million.

There is nothing new, of course, in the government’s push to destroy data, or refuse to collect it, or keep it out of public view by muzzling scientists, a practice that has attracted international attention.

In its rush to develop the Alberta tar sands, the government has also been only too happy to pass legislation on request by Big Oil, opening up the environment, including most of Canada’s freshwater system, to development and pollution. The gutting of the Fisheries Act, which governed Canada’s freshwater networks, was only one measure among several that the oil companies requested. It is no surprise at all, then, that collections of vital freshwater environmental research, such as those held by the Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg, have now been destroyed: we can’t have pesky data getting in the way of ideology and profit.

Deep cuts at DFO might well have led to panic and poor judgement by senior managers in the department, but they shouldn’t have to shoulder all of the blame for this campaign of destruction. Scientists have not been slow to protest, and the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, including Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, are well aware of what has been happening, and haven’t lifted a finger to stop it.

Facts can be so darned inconvenient. Why should they stand in the way of what this government deems progress? The Harper government has shown that it simply won’t tolerate any such thing—even if whole libraries have to be shut down and their contents tossed into the flames.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Disposable workers: our precarious future

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I wish everyone Happy New Year and all the best for 2014.

But it’s a frigid time, in more ways than one. Winnipeg, my old stomping ground, was colder than Mars this week. And too many, there and elsewhere in Canada, are spending these nights outside.

I find myself wondering how many Canadians are only a step or two away from that extreme fate, living as they are on hope and permanently low wages. Unemployment insurance? More than a fifth of unemployed workers fail to qualify for benefits, despite paying into the EI fund for years, as restrictions become tighter and tighter. And the hardest-hit are those who get by on low-wage, no-benefit temporary jobs.

Their number is rising. Is this the future for working Canadians? Half of the workers in Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area live on so-called “precarious employment.” Long-term unemployment is rising. High youth unemployment is now a permanent feature of the economic landscape. Unpaid internships are being used by corporations to grab free labour, boosting their bottom line. The Harper government’s Temporary Foreign Worker program is displacing Canadian workers, despite assurances to the contrary.

Think about what all this means. For your children. For the future they face.

And—since most readers here are public workers—think what it means for you.

You’re already closer to the precarious workforce than you might realize, in your own places of work. Look around.

First there are the “temporary help,” sent over from employment agencies. Not long ago it was reported that one in five of these “temporary workers” stayed on for more than a year. They do not enjoy the wages and benefits of public workers, but their use is increasing: in 2013 they accounted for almost half of all new hires. They mostly work for non-union companies, and are jobbed out to employers on an as-needed basis. In the Public Service, the main stated reasons for hiring temporary workers from outside have been “increased workload” and “staff shortage,” while our members are being laid off. A minority has been able to move on to public service employment, term or permanent, but this number has decreased as overall hiring has dropped: the opportunities for temporary workers to move on to regular PS employment are much more limited now.

These are people like ourselves, with dreams and hopes. Their future is bleak.

Perhaps you—or your nearby workmates—are term employees. This is true precarious work. Thanks to hard bargaining in the past, you get most of the rights and benefits of indeterminate employees under your collective agreement, but no job security. If you make it to three years of such employment in one department or agency, you must be made permanent, so the story goes: but departments can always make exceptions. Your time ceases to accumulate if the powers that be decide that there may be “workforce adjustment situations” in the future (see Section 7.2 of Treasury Board’s Term Employment Policy). Departments have made good use of this loophole.

Or you are one of thousands of indeterminate employees who have recently received an “affected” notice. PS cuts have already had a significant effect on the jobless statistics. Living under the threat of unemployment is stressful, particularly when the government is busy making the whole process as painful as possible. Living with unemployment, of course, is far worse.

No one is saying that our members are heading directly for homelessness, of course. But what we are seeing overall is a set of Conservative policies that seem to be transforming the entire country into one vast pool of cheap, precarious labour. Unions can help turn the tide, but we can’t operate in a vacuum. For all the talk about why unions shouldn’t be getting “political,” we’re up against a government that has no difficulty getting political with us, as one anti-labour bill after another comes roaring down the Harper expressway. Speaking frankly, as I always do, it’s time for labour and our natural social allies—anti-poverty, human rights, environmental and other groups—to pull ourselves together and organize to put an end to all this, once and for all. I look forward to 2014 as a year of opportunity to build that opposition—and I hope you do too.

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2014 listed from newest to oldest.

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